Jun 8, 2024

public service

Long ago I heard an opinion editor for a major newspaper say he was looking for the most aggressive version of the truth in the pieces he runs. So: the truth, but sharply framed enough to border on overstatement, or at least to include some necessary reductionism. This is defensible, I think, if you consider opinion in its canonical sense: a piece-to-think-with, in shortish form, because the reader is engaging the paper in a meandering activity of flipping through and considering, briefly, some matters of public interest. You need the aggressive form to be both arresting enough and brief enough to land, quickly, and to offer some debatable idea on a weekday morning. This character distinguishes the op-ed genre from, say, the analytical essay or longform reporting. Each has its affordances and limitations.

I thought of that again while reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest essay offering a theory-of-everything opinion — to think with, try on for size, squint and assess against other diagnostic essays about what ails the culture now. I also read Cathy Young’s critique of the piece and was glad for the correctives. But I remain undecided about which is the greater public service: the one who writes an opinion piece with an aggressive form of the truth in it, to sharpen the reader’s thinking by putting fine-point frameworks on otherwise hopelessly undifferentiated complexity? Or the one who writes in reaction mode, to qualify and moderate that aggressive form? The latter gets the easy self-satisfaction of having delivered the message that “things aren’t so simple.” But the former sort of falls on her own sword, putting forth a simplified version of reality in order to communicate more directly with a wider public and avoid the great squish. Which serves the public more?